Racing onwards

Robin Swithinbank celebrates 50 years of a true sporting classic

ASK a watch aficionado to name a classic sports watch, and the first answer may well be the TAG Heuer Carrera.

Why? Well, it’s been around as long as Beatlemania; it’s been seen on the wrists of superstars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jenson Button; and as a modernist retort to the stuffy designs that preceded it, it helped change the way watches were both designed and worn.

The Carrera appeared 50 years ago, back when TAG Heuer was just Heuer (the company was bought out by Techniques d’Avant Garde in 1985) and the world was about to get into its Swinging ‘60s stride.

Company boss Jack Heuer had the idea for his new chronograph wristwatch after a conversation with Mexican race driver Pedro Rodriguez, who had told him about a furiously quick five-day road race called the Carrera Panamericana. The race was full of glamour and panache, and the jet set flocked to see professional drivers and rich amateurs hurtling along Mexico’s dusty roads. But it was also incredibly dangerous, and was cancelled after claiming 27 lives between 1950 to 1954.

Nevertheless, Heuer seized on the machismo of the event. Carrera means “road” and “career” in Spanish, and he felt the name would appeal to ambitious, red-blooded, sophisticated men emerging as the world left behind the shackles of the post-war era.

His design was lithe, handsome and undeniably masculine. At the time most chronographs retained the military look of those used wartime pilots, but Heuer, who idolised the minimalist designs of Oscar Niemeyer and Charles Eames, thought it was time watches embraced the modernist spirit. The original Carrera, with its sleek, pared-down lines and baton markers rather than numerals, may look retro today but was as boldly modern as a Lichtenstein comic book painting at the time.

It helped transform Heuer from a company specialising in stopwatches and timing systems for industry into a celebrated prestige watch producer. In the half century since, it has become one of watchmaking’s bona fide icons.

Today, it continues to be a cornerstone of TAG’s offering, in a collection that includes this year’s 50th anniversary Carrera Calibre 1887 Chronograph Jack Heuer Edition [£5,295]. Jack himself – 81 this year – had a hand in the design, insisting, for example, that the dial carries baton hour markers and not numerals, ensuring the unfussy, utilitarian look the Carrera is famous for.

Heuer shared design duties with London-based designer Christoph Behling, the mastermind behind the asymmetrical case found in last year’s groundbreaking TAG Heuer Mikrogirder – a mechanical watch with a stopwatch function that can measure to an accuracy of 2,000th of a second – that is used again here. It was also Behling who swung the crown and chronograph buttons round to 12 o’clock, in part to evoke old-school Heuer stopwatches, but also so the watch could be worn and operated on either wrist.

One last thought – Jack Heuer is retiring this year, meaning this will almost certainly be the last watch he has a hand in. Given the fact his original Carreras have become exceedingly collectible pieces, there’s no reason his last won’t do the same.